Should Corporations Help Employees to Lose Weight?

A recent study carried out by researchers at King’s College London and published in Occupational Medicine has shown that obese employees take more time off sick than employees of a healthy weight.

Each year more people are becoming overweight or obese and this is starting to impact on the health system and the economy. In a study of London Underground employees, obese workers took almost twice as much sick leave as workers of a healthy weight. The research paper concluded:

“Obese employees take significantly more short- and long-term sickness absence than workers of a healthy weight. There is growing evidence to support employers becoming more involved in tackling obesity.”

Obesity leads to many long term illnesses that stress the health service, such as Type 2 Diabetes, cancer, heart disease and stroke, but also lead to more short term illnesses. It is thought that obese people take longer to recover from relatively mild illnesses.

So, who is to blame for the obesity crisis? Is it the government failing to intervene in the food industry, or are schools failing to educate children properly? Is our society just becoming more sedentary and relying more on convenience food for its daily energy requirements? We do not know who is really to blame so we cannot easily prevent more people from becoming overweight. However, we can start to educate people more.

But, are initiatives failing? Jamie Olivers school dinners do not appear to have had a major impact on the health of children. The UK government’s Change4Life campaign do not reach out to everyone – we hear of a few sporadic cases of people losing weight and getting fit, but the campaign is not very well marketed generally. So who should take action?

Maybe the people that are most affected first should take action – employers, corporations, businesses. Studies have shown that exercise and healthy eating improves concentration and productivity. Now research has shown that obesity increases absenteeism. So it only seems logical that a business should take the initiative to educate and guide its staff on how to improve their lifestyle to help get the most out of their work.

A few years ago an innovative idea from PruHealth saw it give free gym membership to is clients that made the effort to workout at the gym each week. Maybe corporations could do the same, but with bonus payments to staff for staying in shape. Many businesses do provide their staff with on-site gyms or discounted membership at local commercial gyms, but as we all know, not everyone that is a member of a gym manages to actually lose weight and get fit.

Whenever governments try to intervene in such situations people start yelling “nanny state” and say that the government should not interfere with the personal lives of its people. Companies will have to tread carefully to encourage its staff to lose weight and live a healthy lifestyle without infuriating some employees.

This idea is not actually a new one though. In the 1980’s Ford Motor Company offered incentives to its staff to lose weight and give up smoking, although the campaigns were more focussed at encouraging its staff to start a self-help program rather than actually provide hands on guidance.

Japan is famous for its corporate fitness sessions, usually on the roof of office blocks at the crack of dawn. Matsushita identified a while ago that it could reduce medical costs by encouraging its staff to lose weight. Many Japanese companies now have lunchtime fitness classes and healthy food (proper healthy food, not food that is just marketed as healthy but in fact full of calories) in its canteens.

In 2008 the Japanese government actually intervened and ruled that Japanese companies had to start measuring its employees waists as part of an annual health check. Companies that under perform in the Japanese corporate weight loss system will be punished by having to contribute more to the national health service.

Panasonic offered cash prizes to staff that walked the furthest in a “Walk Rally”. Staff were issued with pedometers. Some employees started walking to work instead of taking the train.

How companies do this is yet to be determined, but the general consensus is that if adult obesity levels are ever going to fall, it is up to companies and corporations to take the initiative to make a change. If the programs are voluntary and there is a good cash incentive then most employees will probably give it a go. Whether or not Western governments will intervene to the same extent as Japan remains to be seen. Maybe soon they will feel that they have no option.


“Obesity and sickness absence: results from the CHAP study”by S. B. Harvey, N. Glozier, O. Carlton, A. Mykletun, M. Henderson, M. Hotopf, and K. Holland-Elliott. Published in Occup. Med., August 2010; 60: 362 – 368.

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